Nihangs apply colours on each other’s faces during the Hola Mohalla festival to pay their obeisance at various gurudwaras in Anandpur Sahib. (Sanjeev Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Punjab prepares for heightened festivities on 2 March as Sikhs come together at Anandpur Sahib to celebrate Hola Mohalla.

    Where does Hola Mohalla come from? How is it celebrated? And what values does it stand for? An overview here:

Holi will be celebrated tomorrow (2 March) all across India. In Punjab, it is dual festivity time as Sikhs gather at the holy city of Anandpur Sahib in the Himalayan foothills to celebrate “Hola Mohalla” – one of the most important festivals of the Sikhs.

Devotees and tourists from around the world congregate in large numbers at this small town on the Punjab-Himachal Pradesh border to witness the annual spectacle which features martial games and sports traditionally practised by the Sikhs during their long struggle against the Mughals.

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The highlight of the nearly week-long festivities is the Nihangs – a Sikh monastic and warrior order who once formed the crack troops of the Sikh armies. The word “Nihang” is believed to be of Persian origin and means a crocodile. It was coined by Mughal historians to describe the fearsome Nihang Singhs when they first faced them in battle, comparing their ferocity to that of a crocodile.

Known as the nomads of Punjab, Nihangs live in their cantonments (chauni), but wander all over Punjab and India, making pilgrimages to various gurudwaras and Sikh historical sites across the country.

 Sikh devotees spray perfume on the Palki Sahib, which carries the Sikh holy books, to mark Hola Mohalla at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. (Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) Sikh devotees spray perfume on the Palki Sahib, which carries the Sikh holy books, to mark Hola Mohalla at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. (Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

As the Hola Mohalla approaches, it is a common sight in Punjab to see bands of Nihangs make their way to Anandpur Sahib along with their horses and weapons. The Nihangs are always armed and are excellent horsemen. They carry their swords and spears and move around with little else in terms of worldly possessions to encumber them.

The Origins of Hola Mohalla

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The parable of bhakt Prahlada and the demon king Hiranyakashipu finds mention in the Sikh holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, where there is a description of how the lord (Hari) protects from all evil those who place their unwavering faith in him. Each chapter in the Guru Granth Sahib corresponds to a raga, which in turn has a direct relationship with particular human moods. The parable is part of a section that corresponds with the raga Asa, which seeks to instill a mood of hope, courage, inspiration, and determination in the listener.

In 1701 CE, the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, was camped at Anandpur Sahib in the Siwalik Hills, where he was leading a campaign against Aurangzeb and the chieftains of the surrounding hill kingdoms. The Guru felt that the ancient festival of Holi had lost its significance over centuries. The event, as described by the parable of bhakt Prahlada and the destruction of the evil king Hiranyakashipu, was meant to convey a message of unswerving faith, devotion, hope, and the ultimate victory of good over evil, even against all odds.

Guru Gobind Singh and five Sikhs on the march Guru Gobind Singh and five Sikhs on the march

Envisioning a long struggle ahead for the Sikhs against persecution from the Mughals, and realising the need for them to be both strong in their faith as well as prepared physically for battle, the Guru decided on Holi as the occasion when all Sikhs would reaffirm their faith in the Khalsa tradition and prepare for the fight against evil. So, on the Holi of 1701 AD, the Guru personally organised and supervised a series of military drills and mock battles to the accompaniment of recitations of the holy scripture. From then on, Hola Mohalla became an integral part of the Sikh faith.

With the establishment of Sikh sovereignty over all of Punjab by late eighteenth century, Holi celebrations acquired a grandeur not seen for a long time in north India. The imperial capital, Lahore, would be immersed in preparations weeks before the festival, as Maharaja Ranjit Singh loved spending lavishly on the festivities.

It was also not uncommon for foreign dignitaries to be in attendance at the celebrations. For instance, during the Hola Mohalla festivities of 1837 in Lahore, Sir Henry Fane, Commander-in-Chief of the British armies in India, was the guest of honour and he described how the spraying of lac dye (gulal) and rosewater created “such a red dust storm that the very face of the earth looked red”.

The Punjab at this time was the only Indian kingdom that had not been annexed by the British empire. Within a few years, the First Anglo-Sikh war would break out and the land of five rivers would be drowned in blood. But till then, the only red that Sir Henry Fane saw was the red of the colours of Hola Mohalla.

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The Celebrations

The Hola Mohalla festivities at Anandpur Sahib are marked by the recital of the Guru Granth Sahib (kirtan), as well as performances of folk and Sikh devotional music. The entire community partakes of simple meals at the community kitchen (langar).

Dressed in either electric blue or saffron robes with imposing turbans, the Nihangs remain the highlight of the festivities as they display their martial skills to the entire Sikh sangat. Competitions are held for sword-fighting, tent-pegging, bareback riding, and other ancient martial sports.

 Nihangs performing horse riding skills during the Hola Mohalla festival at Anandpur Sahib. (Sanjeev Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) Nihangs performing horse riding skills during the Hola Mohalla festival at Anandpur Sahib. (Sanjeev Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

An essential part of the Hola Mohalla festivities is the traditional drink of the Nihangs – shardai or sukhnidhaan (the giver of bliss). Made from ground almonds, poppy seeds, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, rose petals, and a dash of the secret ingredient – cannabis or bhang, the drink was traditionally used by Nihang warriors to ease the pain from wounds suffered during battle. Although consumption of all sorts of intoxicants is forbidden within the Sikh faith, the Nihang Singhs on account of their special place within the community, enjoy this freedom.

 Young Nihangs playing colours during Holla Mohalla celebrations  in Anandpur Sahib. (Sanjeev Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) Young Nihangs playing colours during Holla Mohalla celebrations in Anandpur Sahib. (Sanjeev Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

On the final day of the festival, a procession led by Sikh priests starts from the gurudwara at Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib and, after covering a number of historical sites in the city, culminates back at Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib, marking an end to the festivities.

Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib is one of the “Panj Takht” or five holy seats (takhts) of Sikhism, the other four being the Akal Takht Sahib (Amritsar), Takht Sri Damdama Sahib in Talwandi Sabo (Bathinda), Takht Sri Patna Sahib (Patna), and Takht Sri Hazoor Sahib, Nanded (Maharashtra). Each takht is represented by a historical gurudwara and stands as a symbol of spiritual authority.

Celebrated with colours, water, and devotion, Hola Mohalla is a reaffirmation of all that which is noble in mankind – hope, courage, inspiration, determination, and, above all, faith.

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